Chronicling a Climate Journey
Chronicling a Climate Journey – Litter Picking and the Swift

Chronicling a Climate Journey – Litter Picking and the Swift

17th August 2022

Today was about connecting with the land and finding next steps. I got on the train to Brockenhurst with the intention of spending the day alone in the New Forest. The forecast was tricky, with heavy rain and thunderstorms predicted. An adventure!

I had been sitting with a question about how to live in the world and sustain myself and my family without exploitation or greed. I voiced it to a friend as “how can I possibly repay the sun for all the energy we are given?” Sitting on the train with the rising sun reflecting in the window, the answer came. “You can’t repay the sun. You ARE the sun. You are nature. Your job is just to keep things in balance; To ensure that what you receive flows to where it is needed. No hoarding or taking more than you need.”

It is funny how the answers come on the journey. There is no arriving. We spend so much of life seeking a destination, that we may miss the real treasure. Any striving for answers from the Forest was dismissed as I sat with this gift in the present moment. I was free to simply go and connect and be open to all that was offered and all I could offer in return.

A train journey is a funny transect, sampling the endless ways we have stamped our mark across the entire landscape. It tells a tale of urban sprawl and the need to harvest every last resource. Housing estates are springing up in every conceivable corner – many homes with views only of the railway line or brick walls. I reflect on our younger generations, desperate to get on the property ladder and needing to have new homes built for that to be a possibility. Homes sometimes built on the flood plains of rivers. My mind ruminates in anguish over the challenge. 

As the train powered through the edge of the Forest, a feeling washed through my body and lit up my face. It was like opening the door to a warm oven and feeling the rush of hot air burst into the kitchen. I breathed it in. Every cell tingled. There is not a place on this Earth that greets me this way, lovely as so many places are. Maybe I have yet to find another, but we have a life-long history and I feel loyal to the core. I feel healed and restored here and something more – I feel loved wildly and able to reciprocate that love without any self-consciousness.  

As I headed out of the village, I quickly found myself immersed in the trees lining the quiet lane. I drank in the delicious smell of petrichor from the long-awaited rain – nowhere near enough though – the ground was clearly only wet at the surface. Turning down the track I had the sense of great hunting estates. Avenues of trees parted to reveal vast expanses of lawn. Some longer grass and “scruffy” edges would be welcome, to my eyes at least!

I passed through the gate and along a path bordering woodland – mostly oak and beech, with generous holly companionship. There was also plenty of stricken ash. A large old oak spilled chestnut-brown heartwood down the slope towards the path. The fruit of bracket fungi rose, stacked like plates, up the tree. I bent down and explored the pieces of wood littered across the floor. They were light and dry, almost cork-like, but a striking russet brown, reminiscent of the iron-tinged streams. I was not sure what really caught my attention but later I would be very grateful for the moments shared with this tree.

  I needed to pack light. I knew that I would be walking some distance and these days my shoulders do not thank me for a heavy load. Thankfully bin bags weigh next to nothing and make a waterproof place to sit or even a makeshift mac in an emergency! It did not take long to find the first carelessly-dropped plastic. I decided on a carrier bag to reserve the larger bags in case my light waterproof coat was not enough. Conscious of the gravel crunching under my feet and the now-rustling bag, I slowed my pace. The woodland was so peaceful. A soft purring filled the undergrowth. Perhaps these were wood crickets. They brought to mind the New Forest cicadas, who had an entire project and hoards of walkers armed with smartphones dedicated to them. July and August feel tinged with a sadness at the absence of birdsong, but today I relished the crickets and occasional bird calls and alarms. I suspected I may have been the source of the concern with my crunching feet and ghastly plastic bag. “Slow down!” the forest told me. Each call was a reminder to savour and appreciate each encounter.

As I turned off onto a permissive footpath, the gravel became grass. The atmosphere was a little wilder here, made all the more so by the unmistakably strong smell of venison and the carcass of a young deer. I noticed the cracked ground underfoot. Places which would clearly normally be boggy were bone dry. For the most part the trees looked reasonably well, although one beech was shedding green leaves and was surrounded entirely by brown bracken. Almost all the bracken had a distinctly autumnal feel and that glorious scent I have come to associate with the early autumn as the fronds start to turn, first yellow and then more orange, until finally settling on crisp brown when the deer have grown and they are no longer needed for cover. 

As I reached the highest point and the woodland edge, I noticed a gate out onto a lane and fields of cattle. The joy of swallows swooping back and forth and chaffinches darting between the hedgerows on either side of the lane. The cows have hay. One field looks almost entirely bare of grass. The drought and strong heat must have been especially tough both for the cows and the farmer, who presumably will have a larger than usual bill for feed this year. I stopped for a while to enjoy the birds. The chaffinches appeared to be enjoying the invertebrates drawn to the cattle dung. I wondered about their future in a world with fewer cows. The swallows, hedgerows and finches seem to go hand in glove with the farmland. “Just keep things in balance.” 

I was struck by the very idea that there was a need for the nature reserve in this beautiful place, but the proximity in all directions of human landscapes made it really clear that fences do not just mark the boundaries for private property. Sometimes they demarcate a wildlife oasis in a desert of mown and heavily-grazed grass. I must have been walking for about an hour and a half and had not seen a single human, but this track was busier with cyclists enjoying a day out. I held the gate for them, somewhat sad that I had not managed to get lost a little deeper in the forest, but also reflecting that the birds were where the people were. 

I walked on and finally found a spot where I could sit and connect. A fallen tree, covered in a blanket of moss, lay in a clearing. I sat and allowed myself just to be. Just to be a part of the forest. It feels very much inside me. Rumbling disturbed the peace. An aircraft or could it be the thunder that was forecast? “Get to lower ground.” I was aware that I was near the top of the hill still, so I walked quickly on down the track, which had returned to gravel. Definitely aircraft. I turned right onto another wilder path and was immediately greeted by the scent of Scots pine. “Slow down” the forest told me. Phytoncides – chemicals that plants use to protect themselves and which boost our human immune systems. Conifers are especially good sources.  I slowed my pace and allowed myself to be immersed once more in the forest. Forest bathing.

Scots pines are special characters. Tall and sometimes aloof, they seem to stand as monuments to the prehistoric. I feel connected to space and back through time in their presence. I also feel connected to the animals who appreciate them deeply. As I looked up, I saw a large, rather scruffy nest. No signs of life now, but I smiled at the possibilities. 

The path met the one I had come in on earlier. It was pleasingly undulating, descending to a river crossing, where I hoped that otters might come this far upriver. Not today at least. The water level was low and I suspected food would be snack-sized at best. At the next descent I was called to slow once more. It was a love of horses I suspect that brought me as a child to the New Forest and I have an enduring appreciation of the way they taught me about how animals shape the landscape and their ecosystems. Heeding the call, I was rewarded with a glimpse of a grey mare deep in the undergrowth. Was she alone? Again the crunching feet betrayed me. She watched me briefly before deciding that I was not a threat nor especially interesting and went back to her foraging. 

I headed out of the woodland for lunch before crossing the main road towards the open heath. The junction was strewn with empty packets, cans and bottles. It struck me that the rubbish thrown from a vehicle onto a National Park is perhaps the key diagnostic symptom of our disconnection with nature. Our lives spent in comfortable boxes are now so far removed from the consequences of our choices that we see this place as a dumping ground.

I had dropped off the now-full plastic bag in the bin at my lunch stop so now I would have to relinquish the larger bin bag. I picked what I could, although the junction and fast traffic made it all feel rather perilous. Then I headed along a path across the heathland. Litter was dotted about this side of the hedge too, although it became more sparse as I moved away from the road.  At least here I could take my time and zig-zag about towards each gaudy plastic adornment of the landscape. Behind the gorse, ponies were grazing and the need to gather every last scrap felt all the more present.

Off the heathland and on to another lane. Yet more litter on either side, reaching its offensive pinnacle at the road junction. I carried the bag of shame across the road, past a public bin which was surrounded by more litter. The bin was nearly full so I kept walking. A buzzard’s cries reached my ears long before I saw them. I wondered if all the noise was a hunting tactic – to scare the prey from cover or if they were perhaps cries of frustration. Across the lane an enormous fallow stag looked up, appearing mildly concerned that he had been caught in the longer grass of a private property, before deciding that, as I was armed only with a bin bag, he could move off at a graceful, leisurely pace. I turned at a gate, eager to be back wild again.

A real adventure demands that you do not know exactly where you are going or what you will find. It offers the possibility of peril, of getting lost, of having tales to tell on your return. So I took the turn, not knowing which direction I was headed in. There was something vaguely familiar here – more neat lines of hunting estate trees. I tried to get my bearings – had I been the other side of this vast lawn this morning? I walked towards the trees and spotted plastic lasagne awaiting my attention. A plastic straw and bag deposited long enough ago that layers of soil had partially covered it. The plastic degrades into smaller and smaller pieces so it can be tricky to remove as it gets older. Still in 500 years it would still be there as evidence of the Age of Careless Plastic. Two men passed and said hello. I felt weirdly self-conscious, as though I was the perpetrator or taking something that did not belong to me. I remembered an American friend telling me about how litter picking in the States is something criminals are made to do, so there is a real stigma associated with it. A second plastic lasagne caught my eye, along with a bright orange bracket fungus. A little further on I found a little church carved in a stump with holly growing from it and beyond that the oak with the russet heartwood. I had retraced my steps and was walking away from where I wanted to head. This was the path I had taken this morning but approached from the other direction, yet I had missed the two plastic lasagnes and the little church the first time around. It is funny how much we fail to notice.

Walking back into the village, I headed for the Green and found a spot to sit beneath an apple tree. I sat and watched a mare with an especially handsome colt. Once again my sit spot was disturbed by rumbling, but this time unmistakably thunder. I gathered up my things and headed back towards town, crossing a dry ditch. An hour later it would be filled with water and the ponies, who had been gathered sheltering under a large oak would be out eating the lusher, green, newly-wet grass. As I walked, the heavens opened so I found refuge in a pub. 

Sitting on the platform, waiting for my train, I reflected on my day. I tried to soak up every last ounce. Towering horse chestnuts appeared to wave me off as the wind caught their blighted leaves. I felt sad to be leaving, but knowing that I carry the Forest in me. I am going to need her. Tired from my walking, I arrived home late. The following morning I awoke energised and hopeful. The Forest has work for me to do.


New Forest Roydons Wood bridlepath

18th August 2022

One of the difficulties of these times is the shear overwhelming nature of the problems that we face and the myriad of things that need fixing. Coupled with grief, anxiety and despair, it can feel paralysing at times. I seem to like to add a little frisson of self-doubt to the mix. So I wake up with the engine firing or rather misfiring as I have energy and ideas aplenty, but with a indecisive driver. I resolve to just put one foot in front of the other. Nature-Connected Neighbourhoods needs a bank account and to navigate the world of business administration – licenses, tax, legal protections – certainly not the exciting, “planet-saving” quest that boosts the ego (heaven forbid), but a couple of chores that this energy will carry me through. An interview later for some help with business mentoring livens things up. I get to talk about my passion!

As I sit preparing, a high flier catches my eye. A solitary swift, who seems almost frantic in their aerial acrobatics. Not the joyful display of the larger flocks, although maybe this is my projection. This swift should have headed back to Africa. I reach out on Twitter, hoping someone can reassure me that all will be OK and that this is quite normal, but this year has been anything but normal. Dehydrated bats flying about confused in the daytime, vanishing rivers and raging wildfires. The nights are still really warm, which may mean that this swift has missed the cue to leave. We are entering uncharted waters, but the swift reminds me of the importance to let go and release into the flow of life, to go with Nature and not against her, even when things are weird. Our minds are useful tools and can help us to spot when things are not following their usual pattern, but they need to be tempered by a connection to Nature and a kind of spiritual (or values-based) compass, which keeps us from putting our minds to the service of fear. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *